Steinhauer’s Opinion: Killing Experience, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two part series. For part one, click here.

Last time we began to look at the apparent fascination with killer experience. Ever since the first pen-and-paper games, character growth has been built on the bedrock of killing monsters and completing quests. Monsters left half-dead and quests only partially completed are of no value at all. But even after thirty years of technological improvements in game design, the same simplistic model is almost universally used today.

There have, fortunately, been game designers who’ve pushed beyond this envelope and we can draw a lot of conclusions based on their examples. The first sample is only a borderline RPG, but still has a lot to suggest. It is the 1989 Microprose game, Sword of the Samurai. This game jumped into my mind because it actually allows for training, be it in the art of the sword or in generalship. When you lose in training, you are told that you can still learn from your defeats, just not as much as from victory. While this concept appears obvious, it seems to be revolutionary in terms of game design. The second great leap taken by Sword of the Samurai also concerns failure. When you die, you die. The game was based on a family rather than a single character. When you are killed, so long as you have an heir, the game continues on though the heir’s stats are always less than his father’s. Obviously this aspect doesn’t translate well into most RPG style games, but it provides a laudatory example of thinking outside the box.

A second, much more recent, example is with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, particularly Oblivion. In this game which follows the standard RPG model, there is no experience gain from killing. In fact, there is no experience at all. Instead, character growth is built on an array of skills specific to a particular class. As those skills are used over an over again, proficiency grows. Once there are ten threshold increases in the class skills, a new level is gained. At that point health, stamina, magicka, and prime stats also improve.

The last example is a partial one only and shows a melding of the classic killer xp with newer models. This occurs in Lord of the Rings Online. Like most RPGs, the only ways to increase in levels are through killer xp or quest completion. However, LOTRO has a second character growth model that is far more innovative. This is through the use of traits and deeds. Each character class has particular skills and traits that set them apart. At various times, if a character performs a particular skill successfully a certain number of times, they gain a further ability or trait. For example, a champion who uses Blade Storm 350 times can now strike up to ten targets instead of five. In other words, like Oblivion, growth here comes through skill usage not killing monsters.

Before we move on to the conclusion, let’s take a step out of gaming and consider how people gain experience in real life. Growth comes from three interrelated things: trial and error, training, and real experience. Fortunately, modern engineers don’t (usually) have to have a building fall down to learn that their plan doesn’t work. Instead, they can test (and fail) at new ideas through computer models or mock ups. There is nothing quite like learning what doesn’t work to sharpen one’s skills. Second, most learning comes from training. This can be informal, like a child following the example of a parent, or formal, like a police officer firing his pistol at a gunnery range. But the third and sharpest experience comes from doing the real thing. I doubt there is a fireman, a soldier, or a football player out there who will tell you that they learned more in practice than in a burning building, a combat zone, or at a football game.

So how can we combine the lessons of earlier innovative game designers and the example set by the real world?

The first and most obvious way to counter killer xp is to allow experience through failure. This can be done several ways. One model would be to allow experience growth to be based on a sliding scale of success. Fighting a monster would yield experience gradually rather than only at completion. Thus a warrior who had to run would gain a percentage (probably on a sliding scale) of the experience that complete victory offers. The second model would be to follow Oblivion’s example and divorce experience entirely from the “kill.” This form is actually more realistic as it is based on skill usage rather than damage inflicted. Instead growth would be founded on familiarity with the skill versus a base difficulty (in the case of passive skills like climbing a cliff) or versus an opponent’s skill (in the case of active skills like stabbing an orc with a sword).

A second step would be to allow for training experience. Since the goal of a game is to get a player out into the world adventuring rather than practicing, training would have to be tempered so that it is impractical for players to train only. But that doesn’t mean training should be cast out entirely. The way to control this would be by having training growth occur much more slowly that practical experience and also be capped at various stages. Training could be instituted in many ways. The most simplistic would be like in LOTRO where a character who has recently gained a new level can go to a trainer to buy new skills. A more involved methodology would be to institute actual training, perhaps intermixed with real experience. For example, a trainer could teach a character a new move, and then send them on a quest to “master” it. A third method would be to actually allow players to train each other.

Whatever the methodology, the over reliance on the killer experience model should be broken. It is simplistic, inaccurate, and in use only because it has become “normal.” I applaud those games that are pushing beyond this boundary and encourage them to continue breaking out of the box. Character growth should follow from actual experience not from the number of rabbit scalps hanging from an adventurer’s belt.

Next time, we’ll take this even further and attack the second antiquated aspect of character development: levels.

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